Behind The Scenes of Hip-Hop – An Interview with Safiya Mae Lewis

Safiya Mae Lewis is a veteran of the music industry. During her time, she has organised tours and held events for some of the most well-known names in the industry, from Puff and Jay-Z to Method Man and Ghostface. We sat down with her to explore what it’s like to manage such big names and what goes on behind the scenes when they’re not on stage.

You’ve run the gamut during your time in the industry. Tell us about some of the people and labels you’ve worked for over the years?

Oh wow, where to begin? I’ve been in entertainment for a while, so I’ve spent time working with record labels such as BMG, Arista/Bad Boy, Loud, RCA, Def Jam, Warner/Elektra, TVT to name a few.

One of the highlights was also one of my first events, which was promoting Puff Daddy’s PE 2000 album. It was Bad Boy’s first trip to the UK and it was a huge deal, so Puff brought the entire Bad Boy family over to London with him. The aim was to launch a full-scale Bad Boy European takeover. I was part of a massive street team campaign with megaphones, flyers and a van wrapped in vinyl with the album artwork and artists on the label that drove all around the city giving out free promotional merchandise. We ended up doing multiple pop up shows at venues across London, and a launch event with a two-hour show at Sound Republic in Leicester Square.

In terms of what I’ve covered, it’s been pretty varied. Some events have been small and intimate, but a lot more are lifestyle orientated, especially at Def Jam in the early 00’s. It was all about making the event bigger and flashier, having more money spent and more beautiful women.

Everything was based on building the value and perception of the culture.

How did you get started working in the industry?

I had a very unconventional introduction into the entertainment industry. I was in college studying to be a music journalist and had contacted a few record companies to obtain some information for an assignment. I received a great response from BMG along with an invitation to come down to the label to get some free CDs the next time I was free and what 18-year-old doesn’t love free music?

I took up the invitation and ended up having a two-hour in-depth conversation about music, producers, and fashion with a lovely lady in Human Resources. She asked me to wait for a moment before coming back with the Head of International Marketing at Arista Records. We talked for another 30 minutes or so then they offered me the job then and there! The rest is history.

You’ve worked closely with a lot of labels and rappers over the years – how has the industry changed since you first started?

One of the biggest and best changes has been the dramatic increase in production values for gigs. Historically, you’d usually have hip-hop shows with a simple DJ set up, and rely on the lyricism and the energy in the room. That just isn’t the case anymore. Now we’re seeing artists such as Drake and Travis Scott turning their shows into a once-in-a-lifetime immersive experience for their audiences. They’ve got flying cars, live musicians, rollercoasters, costume changes and more. It’s inspiring and shows growth by the artist and dedication to all aspects of their craft.

That’s so true. On that subject, as the production values go up, how much of these mega-gigs are coordinated? Is there any room left for spontaneity and spur-of-the-moment invention?

For high production value shows, every step of the performance is coordinated. There are lighting cues, set changing cues – everything is choreographed to the second. At the same time, almost every show involves something that doesn’t go to plan. Artists can forget a verse, a set change doesn’t go off as it should, or they can simply feel a particular energy from the audience and want to respond to it by changing the set list.

Some of those transitions don’t go as smoothly as you’d like, but it’s about creating an agile mindset with your team in the planning stages, ensures that we can sync quickly and pivot to maintain a great show. It sounds simple, but nothing beats an earpiece and a comfortable pair of trainers! The key is to always stay calm whatever happens, but if you ever catch me running, it’s because I’m pre-empting an unexpected change in the middle of the show.

Okay, so which rapper was the most fun to be on tour with?

Hands down Method Man and Ghostface Killah. They’re both an absolute handful. Meth is an explorer when he’s in a city – he’ll just jump on a train by himself then pop up in time for the show. I’ve learned through experience that when I’m doing a Wu gig, I need to count the members on stage and make sure they’re all actually there. The last show of theirs I worked on, we were halfway through when I realised we were one member short. Ghostface had actually left the stage and was at the back of the venue in the crowd selling his own merchandise!

You’ve also done a lot more than just gigs and tours – can you tell us about the other types of events you’ve pulled off?

One of my favourite type of events to produce are album launch parties. Before each one, I spend time listening to the album and pulling out metaphors that I can bring to life as a theme. A fun example is a party for Mark Ronson’s Here Comes The Fuzz album, where I brought Ghostface’s verse on ‘Ooh Wee’ to life with four waitresses in very short paisley robes handing out cigars as well as serving drinks. Watching guests sing along and realise the synergy between the music and their surroundings is priceless.

What’s the most difficult aspect of the job?

Keeping shows on time for venue curfews. Breaking curfew is an expensive experience you want to avoid at all costs, the penalties can be in the tens of thousands depending on the location. There is nothing worse than getting mics shut off mid-show because you have overrun on time.

I’d also say guest list on show days. I don’t know any event professional or promoter who enjoys guest list management on show day. Artists adding 20-30 new names 10 minutes before the show is no fun at all.

Since lockdown, we’re seeing a lot of artists doing virtual gigs – do you think Covid-19 is going to have a permanent impact on the way the music industry handles events?

Absolutely! It’s a difficult time for a lot of artists but I think the level of creativity and collaboration we are seeing coming out of this period of quarantine is incredible. Artists are returning to art and creativity, engaging with their audiences and getting inspiration and immediate feedback on their music which is powerful. It’s almost as if fans have become A & Rs.  

Look at the record-breaking viewing numbers on Instagram Live for Timberland and Swizz Beats Verzuz series for example. To me, that says virtual performances are a trend that will continue. Record companies and live events companies will definitely create ways to monetise this and create independent platforms they control.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to do as part of your job?

I’ve had to pick up insane amounts of weed and use it as a bartering tool to get artists to show up on time more times than I can count.

I can guess which artists those might be! From the sounds of it, it’s not a job for everyone but what advice would you give to anyone who wants to get started in managing gigs and events?

Be passionate about what you do. No event is too big or too small. Your objective should always be to elevate and exceed the expectations of your client and the audience.

Always have a contingency plan for your contingency plan, there will always be an element of an event that does not go entirely to plan but no one has to know that except you.

Alright, last question. At Southsiders we like to close out interviews by asking you to choose between two classic albums. We’ve had arguments about OutKast and Wu so far and currently we’re doing Tribe Called Quest. So Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders?

Ah, tough one. I’ll have to go Low End Theory.

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